Category Archives: interviews

Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped

Boxes crowd the hallways, moving in and moving out. I’m in an empty office at Animo Phillis Wheatley Middle School in South L.A. talking to Principal Nat Pickering, who has resigned after three years so that he can go back to being a teacher. Back when I was teaching, I worked with him; he was a history teacher for years before he became Assistant Principal of our school. I will forever be indebted to Nat, who despite being insanely busy, voluntarily met with me two or three times a month to coach me on the plethora of problems I was having in my various classes; he helped me shape my curriculum, talked me through issues with students and, more times than I can count, simply listened to me venting. Continue reading Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped

Lesson 1: You’re Dead in the Water Without a Great Principal

You know how they say that people come to look like their dogs? A parallel truism is that any organization comes to look like its leader. For some reason, though this idea is axiomatic in corporate life—who would attribute the success of Apple to its highly effective programmers?—when you get to schools, I rarely hear it said that every school embodies the values of its principal. But it’s meaningless to talk about teacher “effectiveness” outside of the context in which he or she works. One of the biggest lessons I learned this year is that a teacher cannot, repeat, cannot be effective for long in a dysfunctional community. And whether that school community is or is not functional is entirely dependent on the leadership of the principal. Continue reading Lesson 1: You’re Dead in the Water Without a Great Principal

What’s the Future of Unions?

The recent ruling in the Vergara v. California lawsuit, in which Judge Rolf Treu struck a body blow against the power of teachers’ unions by declaring that five of California’s laws protecting teacher tenure, firing and seniority were in violation of the state constitution’s guarantee of equal education to all children, has implications so broad I don’t think we can even fully comprehend them yet.

I’ve written in earlier posts that though I absolutely think that bad teachers should be fired—and that last in, first out policies should be re-thought—they are not the core problem in the fight for equal education. I’m troubled by the witch-hunt zeal, the purge mentality, of this lawsuit, which implies that the layoffs that caused so many eager young teachers to be fired in the first place were some kind of natural disaster inflicted upon us by the gods that we should have diverted onto the heads of bad teachers.

But let’s be honest, California: those layoffs occurred because of budget cuts—and those budget cuts were our collective decision. And they were so radical that even if we had first fired the small percentage of bad teachers, we would still have been laying off a large number of excellent teachers. Continue reading What’s the Future of Unions?

Every Student is Somebody’s Child

After seven years of bouncing around the LAUSD, first at a middle school, then starting a pilot school, then in administration, Nicki Tiberio came home—to Theodore Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights, where she herself attended high school. She’s been here three years now and like her colleague Gene Dean, she doesn’t hold back in expressing her opinions.

Growing up in Boyle Heights, she always knew she wanted to be in education. Her mother works in Special Ed with adults. “It gave me an understanding that everyone deserves to work at their level,” Nicki tells me as we sit in the shade of one of the school’s enormous courtyard, Nicki continually answering frantic texts from teachers asking for help in administering the Common Core practice tests (“I can’t say that all of my colleagues are tech-savvy,” she says, philosophical. “There’s no way to prepare for this new assessment other than to practice resilience through patience. A lot of my colleagues aren’t ready for this.”) Continue reading Every Student is Somebody’s Child

The Elephant In the Room Is The Kids’ Low Reading Levels

Gene Dean is keeping it real. An English teacher at Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights for the last nine years, he doesn’t toe anybody’s party line. “What are the stories mainstream media tells about us here in Boyle Heights?” he asks his students at the beginning of their final unit. “What do these stories focus on?” Continue reading The Elephant In the Room Is The Kids’ Low Reading Levels

The Learning Doesn’t Stop When You Leave the Classroom

This post is one of an occasional series profiling Los Angeles high school students across the socioeconomic spectrum.  For other student stories, click here, here, here and here.

“I chose this school because I love to read and write,” says Isabel, 16, a student in Jennifer Macon’s class at Cleveland Humanities Magnet. Self-described as “having an interesting race,” Isabel comes from a family that’s a blend of Korean, Cuban and white, with highly-educated professional parents who, she recalls, read to her throughout her childhood. “My mom is really, really into education,” she says. “My parents have very strong opinions. My dad tends to rant about politics. I feel like their unabashed interested in politics and in discussing things, that’s what definitely sparked my twin interests in politics and social justice.” Continue reading The Learning Doesn’t Stop When You Leave the Classroom

Low Tech Low

The future is here and I’m putting on my sunglasses. I’m in San Diego on my own little field trip of one, squinting into the glare and fighting amazement.

I really wanted to hate High Tech High, the famous charter system with eleven schools in San Diego.   Their reputation annoyed me when I saw it cited in books by academics about how their project-based model would give students the 21st century learning skills they needed. I’d think: yeah, wax on, tell it to TED. Right? So what if they, according to their website, used “design principles of personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and teacher as designer.” What did that even mean? Continue reading Low Tech Low

How Do You Create Relationships?

Jennie Carey knows everyone. At least it seems that way. She’s been the L.A. Education Partnership’s Community School Coordinator at Cesar Chavez Learning Academies since the school’s beginning in 2011; before that, she did the same job at nearby Sylmar High. “The overarching idea is that my job is to find out what are the barriers to student success and come up with strategies to try to overcome them,” she tells me as we talk in her office, an empty classroom whose walls are covered with giant post-its scrawled with notes from meetings. “I very much view my job as a strategy creator.”

Jennie started as a teacher, but after four years in the classroom, went to Harvard for a Master’s in School Leadership. “I liked the idea of studying leadership from the place of being a non-authority,” she says, a view that permeates her role here, where her main job is to connect people, listen and create infrastructures that allow constructive conversations. “My question is, how do you create relationships?Continue reading How Do You Create Relationships?

Education Super-connectors

Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s term “super-connectors,” those people who know everyone and can hook you up with whatever you need?  I’ve just met the education version in L.A.  And I think they may be onto something.

“You’ve got to go deep into the ground and not assume anything about people,” says Ellen Pais, CEO of L.A. Education Partnership, a 30-year old non-profit whose stated mission is to “work as a collaborative partner in high-poverty communities to foster great schools that support the personal and academic success of children.” In other words, they build a network that connects students and families to the resources they need so that kids can stay in school and succeed.

I’m sitting in Ellen’s office at a window overlooking nearby downtown L.A., along with Lara Kain, senior director of their partner schools division, and they’re telling me about a program so utterly unlike the instant-results, test-score-driven, “we don’t have time to wait” philosophy of the Ed Reform world that I’m almost disoriented. A program that’s existed for 30 years? That seems to exist under the radar of almost everyone I know, including people who know a lot about education? That has grown…slowly? Continue reading Education Super-connectors

College, College, College, College

Don’t be fooled by the radiance, confidence and bubbly warmth of Azanni, Symone, Jada and Immani, four seniors at View Park High School in South Los Angeles, an ICEF charter school.  They are stressed.  Imani and Azanni applied to 22 colleges each, Jada to 20, Symone to 11.  “I wanted to have options!” Jada tells me and the girls all laugh, agreeing.  We’re sitting at a picnic table on the quad at View Park, where they’ve taken time from their classes to give me a tour of the school, talking over each other in their enthusiasm as they tell me the various places they’ve applied, ranging from Brown and Penn, their dream schools, through UCLA, Berkeley, USC, Spelman, the Claremont schools, several Cal States and many others. Continue reading College, College, College, College